On my 40th birthday, my wife took me out for dinner. It was an amazing meal at David Bouley’s restaurant in New York City, which, if you have not been there, is “to die for.” About halfway through, my wife said she wanted to give me my birthday present, but that I would have to guess what it was. I am never good at these things and so I asked for a hint. She responded with, “it is what you always wanted.”
Now I would assume for most men, the thought of “what you always wanted” conjures a world of salacious possibilities, requiring some time to sort and appraise, so I’ll let your imagination play with that.
For me, however, the answer was rather immediate. My response, however was delayed as I considered what my wife’s feelings might be if i guessed wrong about what she thought “I always wanted.” (It’s hard not to be smiling now as I write this while imagining the vast thoughts that may be plaguing you, the reader, about now.)
Carefully and calmly, I said, “Well, that would have to be Formula One driving school!” She sat quiet, not stunned, or shocked, just still. And then a Mona Lisa smile appeared on her face and she did not say a word. I was in shock, was she playing with me? Did she know me that well? Was this truly the woman of my dreams, remembering back to our first date, almost 10 years prior, that I said in our “sharing our aspirations” segment that I always wanted to drive a formula racecar on a track? Yes, it was! Her smile got bigger with each exclamation of mine, tears filled our eyes and I never felt more loved, understood or cared for than at that moment.The icing on the cake was that the school was not just at some local facility for a small single track day but a three-day, intensive classroom with track experience at the Jim Russell Racing School at Circuit Mont Tremblant, Montreal, the home of the Canadian Grand Prix! For those who don’t know, Jim Russell was instrumental in developing many young drivers such as Emerson Fittipaldi, Derek Bell, Danny Sullivan, Tiff Needell and Jacques Villeneuve. Russel was also responsible for the cars and much of the driving in John Frankenheimer’s film, Grand Prix, with actor James Garner receiving much of his driving direction for the film.The first morning of the school was in the classroom. We all introduced ourselves and explained why we were there. Many in the class were quite a bit younger than myself, but I didn’t care, I was living my dream. I was riding a cloud and could not wait to get on the track. The first lesson in the classroom was about manual shifting, which was not an easy task since the transmission did not have synchronizers. It was, therefore, necessary to “blip” the engine to 3000 rpm before shifting to ensure a smooth transfer of gearing. Assuming we had practiced this weeks before we arrived at the school, we went out onto the track. Each of us was fitted into the car, a Formula Ford with a small, underpowered, four-cylinder engine. Traditionally, Formula Ford racing events are considered the first step toward formula racing after go-karting.All the students of the class drove out to a section of the course and were instructed to drive the straightaway until the end, where our teacher would give us a sign to begin. We were instructed to shift up to third gear and upon a certain marker on the side of the track, downshift to second, make the turn and pull to the side till everyone had completed the exercise. Each of us accelerated to third gear and then tried to smoothly downshift with the necessary blip. It was not hard to hear the sounds of inexperience and nerves. Upon the last driver completing the task, we were instructed to park the cars on the side, exit the vehicle and stand at attention.The instructor then proceeded to lecture us that what he heard was not the beautiful sound of a perfectly performed downshift, not even close and that if we thought we knew anything about driving, we were wrong. He was visibly upset with the crew of crack-shot drivers he had inherited and was determined to remove any iota of bravado from each of us. He went on to clarify that our engorged egos (actually, he used another more anatomical reference) were illusions based on nothing and that if we wanted to successfully complete the course, our talent must accurately and objectively exceed our views of ourselves. He suggested that we should all be humbled by our ignorance and he was right. We were terrible. We all became like grasshoppers seeking the truth.
By Will Avgerakis